In 2004 I completed a setting, for soprano and soundfile (tape? CD?) of a wild text by humorist S.J. Perelman called “Scenario.” I haven’t been able to find what year the text was first published, but I suppose Perelman (one of the funniest writers ever, and with an unparalleled genius for wordplay) had been slaving away in Hollywood, where he worked on the scripts for the early Marx Brothers movies. “Scenario” is a stream-of-consciousness satire of a scenario for a movie, a hysterical profusion of not only scene descriptions and actions but bits of dialogue, stage directions, director’s complaints, Hollywood gossip, and other miscellanea. Since, after immobility, stream-of-consciousness collage is my favorite type of musical continuity to compose, I couldn’t resist, and wrote it for the virtual orchestra of my dreams, with impossible tempo overlays and crossfades, occasional microtonality, and including banjo, guitar, harmonica, and a complete set of chromatic timpani. I hired my old friend composer Michael Maguire to realize the recording for me and started looking around for a soprano.
Well, it took eight years to get one to take the bait, and not until Martha Herr came back into my life did I get to premiere the piece, which we did Friday evening to a rather ridiculously small audience (Bard being on fall break). The next day we went into the studio and recorded it, and now you can finally hear Scenario. I’ve always thought it was one of the best, and funniest, things I’ve ever done. Martha started out with the famous Creative Associates at SUNY Buffalo, and first sang my music soon after that period. She sang Babbitt’s Philomel on her college senior recital, with Babbitt in attendance, and was selected by Feldman to premiere his opera Neither, so I was honored to have her premiere Scenario as well. It’s a really difficult piece, 17 minutes with few rests, and dotted throughout with sudden shifts of tempo. She does a superb job, and I can’t tell you what a relief it is to hear, in the flesh, a piece I’ve been singing to myself for eight years. The crazy text is up here, and Perelman’s vocabulary is so arcane that, even with Martha’s excellent diction and a good recording, you probably can’t figure out all the words without reading it.
I think of it as a 17-minute pocket opera for soprano and CD. Some will object to my use of the term, some to the with-CD format, some to the synthetic creation of orchestral textures, some to the constant intercutting, and many to many other things about it, but I hope a few will be able to hear it for what I consider it, a musical amplification of a wild and comically surreal text, in the intended same vein as Walton’s Facade and Virgil Thomson’s operas.Related